Avanlee Christine has spent most of her life caring for seniors; now, she’s determined to help the rest of the world do the same. The Montana-bred New Yorker likes to say that her career started at the age of 10, when she watched her mother and grandmother care for her grandfather before he passed away. Throughout her career, Avanlee has worked in the healthcare system, going from nursing school to helping build health tech startups. Now, she runs Avanlee Care, a startup focused on helping loved ones care for — and stay connected with — aging parents and grandparents through medication and appointment reminders, activity trackers, photo and message sharing, and group communication.
Here, the VOZ Woman shares the personal story behind her mission and vision.
What does Avanlee Care offer?
Family caregivers need a way to connect with loved ones, see how they are doing, reduce loneliness, keep an eye on their health…. And to do so in one tool, comfortable for seniors. Avanlee Care provides that solution! Avanlee is an easy-to-use, all-in-one app for family caregivers, allowing families to manage an aging parent’s health and do it together while communicating with one another.
How did you become a healthtech founder?
I was born and raised in Montana. I spent the majority of my childhood at my grandparents’ house building forts, playing in the wood shop, and sitting on my grandpa’s lap as we drove around the ranch moving cattle. When I was 10, my grandfather became ill. For the next eight years I watched my grandmother, parents, aunts, and uncles care for him. I saw firsthand the heartache, uncertainty, and difficulties that come with caring for someone as they age, decline, and ultimately pass away.
My grandfather passed away in 2008. I remember thinking there had to be a better way to do all this, but I didn’t yet understand how that would work; furthermore, the technology did not yet exist.
I started my career as a certified nursing assistant while attending nursing school. But I quickly realized I could do more good by leveraging my talents elsewhere. So I left and joined a healthcare tech startup where I worked to become VP of sales in New York. While working in healthcare, I saw many healthcare technology companies try to address the challenges that families and seniors face with aging. As years went by, I started to wonder if any lasting change would take place and if someone, somewhere, would build a solution for family caregivers.
In 2016, I spoke at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on how tech giants could create ways to care for the elderly. Tech giants came from all over the world to showcase their “solutions” for senior care. There, I remember seeing the robot Pepper for the first time. Pepper was trained to answer questions that would “lift up a person’s mood.” Other robots were designed to dispense medications to seniors who lived alone. I was in a room with some of the world's smartest developers and most brilliant CEOs, but when I asked if any of them had ever cared for a senior or took the time to show them how to use an iPad or iPhone, the answer was always no.
I have sat at the feet of seniors in nursing homes while they experienced unimaginable loneliness, depression, and isolation. I’ve washed their hair, helped them get dressed, changed their bed pans, and spent many hours getting to know them. How did we get to a place in society where people become so much less valuable because they are aging?
Why is it that younger generations are more connected to a celebrity or Instagram influencer than to their own grandmother?
On the flight back from Barcelona to JFK after the conference, I conceived of the idea for what is now Avanlee Care. This company is for the adult child whose mom is 500 miles away and needs to be cared for because her health is changing. This is about the grandchild who is leaving for college, but her grandfather is not able to make the trip to help her move into her dorm room.
Avanlee was not around when my grandfather passed away in 2008, but today, anyone with a cell phone or a tablet can use it to help care for and communicate with their aging parents or other relatives. Today my grandmother is nearing the end of her life, but she has never been happier. In part this is because, for the first time, she is connected to all her grandchildren on Avanlee. Five months ago my grandmother never owned a smart device, but it took her only fifteen minutes to understand the application. I am witnessing firsthand how my mother and her siblings who are in different states now make sure she’s cared for and feeling connected, something they did not have in 2008 for my grandfather.
Why is your app more relevant than ever right now?
The challenges of being a family caregiver are real. In 2020, we’ve seen how aging adults face isolation, depression, loneliness, and have become higher risk targets for illness. Overnight, families were forced to remain socially distant from elderly parents, with no way to see them while they tried to help manage their health from a distance.
Covid-19 shined a spotlight on our aging population. It showed that the elderly do not have the proper tools to remain safe at home, manage their health, and most importantly—stay connected to their families. However, this has been a long-time issue for seniors and their family caregivers. Throughout my career, I’ve always wondered if someone would create a simple way for siblings to be able to care for an aging parent but as time passed, all I really came across was the LifeAlert button. I kept thinking there had to be a better solution and when my grandma became ill during Covid, and I was living in Manhattan, I knew it was time to build it.
Your app is all about security, safety and staying connected. What other values have arisen that you hold highly when serving customers?
Building strong relationships between the caregivers and those receiving care through the Avanlee app. Sadly, our society overlooks seniors and aging becomes a lonely season of life. Just because you age, it does not make you less valuable! I’ve seen relationships between grandchildren and their grandparents blossom through our app because they have an easy way to stay close to each other. Siblings have peace of mind because Avanlee provides them a clear window into their mother or father’s healthcare needs, so they know how to divvy up care tasks.
Your company was inspired by your grandfather, and now your family uses Avanlee with your grandmother in Montana. How do you make time for yourself and find balance between assisting those you love and your career?
Well, when you start a company, I think you hang up any personal life you once had for a while! Now that we closed our first investment round — I’m proud that one of our backers is the noted angel investor Esther Dyson —and our team has doubled in size, it’s allowed me to focus on being more attentive to my grandmother and what she is going through in this phase of life. She recently moved into an assisted living facility back in Montana, but we communicate daily via video chat on Avanlee and she’s constantly uploading pictures of her new digs and friends she’s meeting at the nursing home. It’s been such a relief to use this with my own grandmother while I run this company in New York.
What does inclusivity mean to you and how has it been embedded in your brand?
Inclusivity is important to me because of who we serve – everyone! We’ve created a platform for people with different identities, abilities, and circumstances to feel welcome and comfortable when caring for their aging parent.
How did growing up in Montana shape your outlook and spirit?
When most people think of Montana they think of the TV show Yellowstone, with Kevin Costner. I laugh because I did grow up in that part of Montana, spending summer branding and shipping cattle with my dad and grandfather, but I can tell you it was NOT as glamorous as the TV show! I appreciate the work ethic I learned from my grandfather and dad at a very young age. In the late 60’s my grandfather left New York and started a cattle company in Montana, later my dad took it over and I’ve had the privilege of watching my dad for the last 30 years build that with his dad. They really taught me the value of hard work, honesty, and integrity. They are high-caliber men and it’s been a great example to me when I started this company and it’s reflected in whom I’ve chosen to hire, and allow to invest.
What are your hopes and dreams for what you are building?
I hope that one day when you hear the name “Avanlee,” you associate it with aging. That siblings, grandchildren, and seniors would know that there is a solution for them when they enter this season of life. That this would change the way the world cares for the elderly population; bring life back to aging; bring meaning and purpose to the later years in life; and bring dignity to a generation of people who did not grow up with technology. I hope this is the technology platform that changes the way the world cares for the elderly.